Lack of turnovers, running game a concern

OWINGS MILLS -- Now that Brian Billick is assured of returning as the Baltimore Ravens' coach, he has two major offseason projects to tackle. He wants to figure out what happened to a once dominant running game, and a defense that used to produce turnovers at an elite level.

One year after averaging 128.9 rushing yards per contest to rank ninth in the NFL, the Ravens (6-9) have dipped to 19th overall with a franchise-low average of 98.4 yards. Former Pro Bowl running back Jamal Lewis has gained a career-low 817 yards with a 3.3 average per carry.

Meanwhile, the defense has slipped in the turnover department with only 10 interceptions and 11 fumble recoveries. A year ago in finishing 9-7, Baltimore intercepted 21 passes, including nine from NFL Defensive Player of the Year Ed Reed, with 16 fumble recoveries.

Reed, who hasn't intercepted a pass this year, missed six games with a high-ankle sprain.

Heading into Sunday's game against the Cleveland Browns (5-10), Billick is scratching his head at both developments.

"We've been consistent in our ability to run the ball for six years, and to not have it this year is something we've got to look real hard at: personnel, scheme, what we called, when we called it," Billick said. "The other thing is turnovers, why we haven't gotten the turnovers we've had in the past."

SALARY-CAP SHAPE: The figures aren't available yet, but Billick indicated that the team will have plenty of room for player salaries under the NFL salary cap.

It's unclear how much money Baltimore will be willing to spend to retain several free agents, including eight starters.

Multiple key players are set to become unrestricted free agents, including running backs Jamal Lewis and Chester Taylor, quarterback Anthony Wright, defensive end Tony Weaver, nose guard Maake Kemoeatu, offensive tackle Tony Pashos, safety Will Demps, linebackers Tommy Polley and Bart Scott, punter Dave Zastudil, wide receiver Randy Hymes, defensive backs Chad Williams and Dale Carter and tight end Darnell Dinkins. Deion Sanders is likely to retire.

The team also wants to negotiate a long-term contract extension for Reed, which will probably represent a landmark deal for a safety. Little progress has been made in negotiations with Reed's agent.

"We are in very good cap shape," Billick said. "What that means, we'll see going forward."

2006 SCHEDULE: Because the Ravens are guaranteed to finish third in the AFC North no matter what happens Sunday, their opponents for 2006 are set. Dates and times won't be available until the spring.

The Ravens will play at home against the Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers, Cincinnati Bengals, Oakland Raiders, San Diego Chargers, Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers and Buffalo Bills.

They will travel to play the Denver Broncos, Kansas City Chiefs, New Orleans Saints, Tennessee Titans and Tampa Bay Buccaneers in addition to their usual road trips to Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Cleveland.

TRAINING ROOM: Tight end Todd Heap (hip) and cornerback Chris McAlister (shoulder/thigh) didn't practice, although they are listed as probable. They were the only changes to the injury report.

AWARDS: Outside linebacker Adalius Thomas was voted as the team's Most Valuable Player, and Jamal Lewis was voted the Good Guy award by reporters who regularly cover the team.

Despite having his worst season ever, Lewis was consistently open and forthright in discussing difficult topics, including his incarceration in prison, his frustrations with his contract situation and a reduced workload. Lewis joked that it was the only thing he's won all year.

QUICK HITS: Wide receiver Mark Clayton remains close friends with Browns rookie safety Brodney Pool, his former Oklahoma teammate. "We talk every day, but we don't talk about football," Clayton said. "It's always good to get to see him and hang out." … Several teammates are preparing for a likely farewell to Sanders, who will probably retire, and got him to autograph jerseys Thursday. … The Browns are 0-5 in the AFC North and have never gone an entire season without winning at least one division game. That streak dates back beyond their rebirth in 1999 as an expansion franchise, prior to the NFL-AFL merger in 1970 and goes all the way back to 1950, the Browns' inaugural year in the NFL. … The Browns haven't scored a touchdown in their last nine quarters with rookie Charlie Frye at quarterback. … Billick said he doesn't know if he'll speak to former Ravens quarterback Trent Dilfer on Sunday. "That's up to Trent," Billick said. "I'd love to talk to him, I really would, but given the circumstances and what transpired and where Trent is right now.." … Billick said he isn't surprised that quarterback Kyle Boller isn't acting cocky after stringing together two good games. "He's not that type of young man," Billick said. "That is part of the caliber of the young man that draws you to him and makes you believe that he can be successful because I don't think that he is about that." ... In a conference call with Cleveland reporters, Billick declined to say if he thinks he'll be the coach beyond the 2006 season and took issue with reports that he's under contract through 2007 at $4.5 million per year. "I will say this: I have yet to see the length and term of my contract accurately reported," Billick said.
 

In addition to being a long time contributor to RavensInsider, Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times in Westminster Maryland.

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